White farmer Mike Campbell, who challenged Robert Mugabe, lost his land and then his life
MIKE CAMPBELL (Obituary)
April 8, 2011
Campbell, who died on April 6, aged 78, of injuries sustained during
torture by Zanu-PF militants in 2008, was a white Zimbabwean farmer who dared to challenge President Robert Mugabe's racist "land redistribution" policy in the courts and won.
A documentary film about the case and its tragic aftermath, "Mugabe and the White African" (2010), made by the British film-makers Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson during clandestine visits to Zimbabwe, brought the plight of white Zimbabwean farmers and their farm workers to world attention, winning numerous awards.
Michael Campbell was born on a farm at Klerksdorp, South Africa, in 1932 into a family which had farmed in Africa since 1713. After leaving school he served in the South African Army and was involved in the early 1970s in the bush war between Rhodesia's white rulers and black independence fighters.
He decided to move to Rhodesia in 1974, attracted by its excellent
hunting and fishing. He bought Mount Carmel farm in the Chegutu district and, after the country became independent as Zimbabwe in 1980, purchased a neighbouring farm.
Together with his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, he worked hard to make it
profitable, planting mangoes, citrus trees, maize, tobacco and
sunflowers, establishing a herd of Mashona/Sussex cattle and dedicating a large area to a wildlife reserve, complete with herds of giraffe, impala and other animals. Their Biri River Safari Lodge became a popular tourist destination.
Campbell was described as a model employer, and by the end of the 1990s Mount Carmel farm was the largest mango producer in Zimbabwe, helping to generate much-needed export earnings. The farm sustained the livelihoods of more than 500 people, and in 1999 it was legally transferred into a family company by a "certificate of no interest" from the Mugabe government.
In 2000, however, after losing a referendum called to approve a new
constitution that would entrench his power, Mugabe began encouraging the violent invasion of the country's white-owned commercial farms,
presenting the policy as a "redistribution" of land to the poor and as a triumph over greedy white imperialists.
In reality the policy, spearheaded by a ragbag army of armed thugs the so-called "war veterans" was a ruse to cement Mugabe's hold on power through the distribution of patronage. It thus became a scramble for the plum, mainly (though not exclusively) white-owned, estates among the country's elite, most of whose members had little interest in farming. Beneficiaries have included Mugabe's relatives, along with generals, judges, provincial administrators, ministers and MPs and even MPs' girlfriends.
The consequences have been disastrous. Zimbabwe was once one of the most agriculturally rich countries in Africa; now more Zimbabweans rely on international food aid than in famine-struck Ethiopia.
The "war vets" arrived at Mount Carmel farm in 2000. "About 20 or 30
turned up and I gave them a shed to live in because I told them I don't want you chopping my trees to build your huts," Campbell recalled. After a year with Campbell refusing to leave, they moved off on to adjoining land owned by his son Bruce. From there they made regular forays to Mount Carmel. The safari lodge was burned down, wildlife was poached or slaughtered and cattle stolen.
After getting no redress from the Zimbabwean courts, Campbell made legal history in 2007 when he decided to challenge Mugabe's land seizures in the region's highest court, the inter-governmental Southern African Development Community (SADC) Tribunal which sits in Namibia. The following March an additional 77 white farmers joined the case.
In November 2008 the tribunal condemned the seizures as "racist" and
theft on a grand scale. The farmers could keep their land, it ruled,
because the redistribution programme was discriminatory and was not
being implemented according to the rule of law.
But before the judgment, on June 29 2008, just two days after the
Zimbabwean presidential run-off election, Campbell, his wife and his
son-in-law were abducted and taken to a remote militia camp where they
were tortured for nine hours. Campbell sustained severe head injuries,
broken ribs and damage to his lower limbs caused by "falanga" (a method of torture which involves beating the soles of the feet).
His wife Angela was forced to sign a piece of paper promising the family would not continue their court battle. Then they were driven off again and dumped on the roadside, from where they were rushed to hospital.
Despite their injuries, the Campbells refused to throw in the towel
though Mike Campbell was so badly battered he could not attend the
tribunal's final hearing. Ben Freeth, whose skull was fractured,
attended in a wheelchair, his head swathed in bandages.
The ruling, when it came, was a Pyrrhic victory. Constant attacks on
their farm workers, theft of farm equipment and the destruction of crops drove Campbell and Freeth to return to the tribunal in 2009 to obtain a contempt order against the government. Although President Mugabe had signed the treaty establishing the tribunal, he has dismissed its findings in the white farmers' case as "nonsense". A government document distributed soon after the ruling promised that the evictions would continue.
Campbell, a gruff, dignified man who described himself as a white
African, remained phlegmatic in the face of danger. In one memorable
scene in Mugabe and the White African, the Campbells are seen enjoying a sundowner in their farmhouse when news comes through that an armed militia gang has been spotted by farm staff. As he lifts his whisky glass to his lips, Mike tells his wife there is no point getting excited. "I'll go out there when I have finished my drink."
In April 2009 the Campbells and Freeths were driven from Mount Carmel
Farm by a rampaging mob led by Nathan Shamuyarira, an octogenarian
member of Mugabe's politburo. The farmhouse was subsequently burned to
the ground, along with the homes of 60 workers and a small linen factory set up by Mrs Freeth to provide employment for the farmers' wives. The Campbells, aged 76 and 68, decamped, penniless, to what they hoped would be temporary accommodation in Harare.
In the documentary, Peter Chamada, the son of Nathan Shamuyarira, is
seen arriving on Campbell's farm in his shiny new luxury Toyota Prado,
taking photographs on an expensive mobile phone. "This land is now my
home," he declares into the camera. "The government has taken it from
you people to redistribute to the poor black majority. This land belongs to the black peasants."
Campbell clung to the hope that he might recover his land, and last
month with an elderly black farmer Luke Tembani, who had also been
dispossessed he lodged an application with the SADC Tribunal for an
order that would ensure the Tribunal would continue to function, after
the SADC heads of state decided last year to suspend its operations
pending a review of its role. This move was widely seen as a response to the tribunal's ruling in Campbell's case and thus a show of support for Mugabe by governments in the region.
Mike Campbell is survived by his wife, Angela, and by their son and two daughters.
His farm, meanwhile, is derelict, the land reverting to African bush.
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